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The Justice Department has announced that it will begin releasing 6,000 “non-violent” inmates from federal prisons starting at the end of this month. Welcome to the era of de-incarceration. At a conference named for former New York Mayor David Dinkins (who presided over the city at a time of runaway crime), Hillary Clinton decried the number of Americans behind bars and declared, “It’s time to change our approach. It’s time to end the era of mass incarceration.”
In this, she is joined by Bernie Sanders and other Democrats, and also by Charles Koch, who wrote recently that “Overcriminalization has led to the mass incarceration of those ensnared by our criminal justice system, even though such imprisonment does not always enhance public safety. Indeed, more than half of federal inmates are nonviolent drug offenders.” Senator Rand Paul has called mass incarceration “the new Jim Crow.” And Carly Fiorina suggested during the last debate that “We have the highest incarceration rates in the world. Two-thirds of the people in our prisons are there for nonviolent offenses, mostly drug-related. It is clearly not working.”
Not exactly. The U.S. does have the highest incarceration rate in the world (that is, among nations that list these data honestly), but the assertion that most of the people incarcerated are there for non-violent crimes is false. Advocates for de-incarceration often cite the number of federal prisoners who committed non-violent drug offenses. This is highly misleading. Of the 1.6 million inmates in America, only about 200,000 are federal prisoners.